Washington. Donald Trump's approval rating has slid since release of the Russia investigation report, but instead of emerging bolstered in the 2020 presidential race, Democrats are torn over triggering impeachment proceedings that risk muddling their electoral message.
While special counsel Robert Mueller's report released last week stopped short of reaching a judgment on whether Trump committed crimes, many Democrats say it detailed extensive presidential wrongdoing that highlights his lack of fitness for office.
And it essentially invites the House of Representatives, led by opposition Democrats, to initiate impeachment proceedings to determine whether Trump obstructed justice.
But will lawmakers take that explosive political step, as some 2020 presidential hopefuls have said they should, or will they heed the advice of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi who has been pumping the brakes on impeachment talk?
The debate has pitted Democrats against one another at a time when the party might be better served by unifying ahead of a battle against Trump for the presidency in 2020.
"I see no good outcome for the Democrats from impeachment," Christopher Arterton, a political professor emeritus at George Washington University, told AFP.
"That turns Trump into a victim... and I think that not only energizes his base but it's attractive to the group of 20 percent that are basically in the middle and undecided so far about their presidential vote."
More Americans oppose rather than support impeaching Trump. Just 34 percent back the process compared with 48 percent opposed, according to a Morning Consult poll.
The survey also shows Trump's job approval rating dropping five points following release of Mueller's report, to 39 percent of voters against 57 percent who disapprove, the lowest-ever rating of his presidency.
Several Democrats, buoyed by Trump's sinking popularity and how the scandals brought to light by Mueller could hurt his re-election chances, have cautioned Congress against obsessing over Trump's impeachment instead of judging the president on his first term and addressing significant issues like health care.
"I worry that works to Trump's advantage" if the focus is on impeachment, said candidate Bernie Sanders.
But in the wake of Mueller's findings, at least five of the 20 Democratic presidential hopefuls, including senators Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris, have publicly called for impeachment proceedings.
Warren argued that the question should not be whether the process creates partisan advantage, but whether it meets the constitutional bar of high crimes and misdemeanors.
"This is not about politics. This is about principle," she said.
- 'Finding the truth' -
That Warren and Sanders, two of the party's progressive messengers, are on opposite sides of the divide crystalizes the impeachment dilemma facing Democrats.
Clearly the party is eager to reap the benefits of the Mueller report's damning revelations, including Trump calling then-White House counsel Don McGahn in 2017 to direct him to order Mueller's firing, a move critics have described as textbook obstruction of justice.
One argument against ouster suggests that even if the House votes to impeach Trump, the Senate's Republican majority would acquit, a result that would unify the Trump's party and embolden a sitting president who could tout his immunity to political scandal.
Trump's arch foe Pelosi told her caucus Monday that she wants to move forward with ongoing congressional investigations, and not rush to impeachment.
"We all firmly agree that we should proceed down a path of finding the truth," Pelosi wrote Monday in a letter to colleagues.
"It is also important to know that the facts regarding holding the President accountable can be gained outside of impeachment hearings," she added.
On cue, House Judiciary Committee chairman Jerry Nadler announced he was subpoenaing McGahn to testify in their investigation into whether Trump obstructed justice.
"Pelosi will try to drag this out on a low simmer through 2020," tweeted Ross Garber, a veteran impeachment lawyer.
"She wants to focus on key elections issues and not on what the House Dems are doing or not doing about impeachment."
Pelosi may also be looking to history as a guide. Her party would recall the backlash suffered by Republicans who sought to oust president Bill Clinton in 1998.
Among the Democratic presidential hopefuls who has not publicly weighed in on the current impeachment debate is Joe Biden. The former vice president is the Democratic frontrunner despite not formally entering the race.
Biden is expected to announce his candidacy Thursday in an online video, according to US media -- and he will likely be forced to quickly wade into the debate. (AFP)